There’s no Bisons football season but that doesn’t mean there’s an absence of Bisons football.
University of Manitoba’s squad and the rest of the Canada West conference won’t compete this fall, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, three of four U Sports conferences across the country will not operate football schedules in 2020. Only the Quebec conference has yet to decide if its season is a go.
But the Bisons have been holding informal twice-a-week workouts on campus for the last five weeks, and the casual stuff ends Tuesday when a mandatory training camp begins.
"On Sept. 8, fall football starts at the University of Manitoba on a very restricted and limited basis. We’ll be going two or three times a week, as long as we’re able to, and keep the Bison train moving," said head coach Brian Dobie. "We’re grateful for this opportunity."
The U of M coaching staff has a binder of safety requirements, which are more important now than anything in the squad’s regular playbook.
The football program had to address and satisfy the return-to-play protocols of four different entities — Football Manitoba, Football Canada, Manitoba Health and U of M’s own administration — before returning to the practice field.
"There were a lot of hoops to jump through to make this all happen, important hoops," said Dobie, noting aspects of physical distancing, proper handwashing and the sanitization of equipment is all compulsory. "Just think about having guys on a football field. Think about huddles — it’s one of the first things a kid learns when they start playing football. Well, huddles don’t look like huddles anymore. Not right now they don’t."
"... Huddles don’t look like huddles anymore. Not right now they don’t.” — Bisons football head coach, Brian Dobie
That part of the offence now requires players standing two metres apart. Either Dobie or one of his assistants will hold up cards with plays on them so players at the back of the expanded semi-circle know what’s being called.
"You operate different, you coach differently. It’s challenging but it’s interesting and it’s exciting for all of us to be together again as a group, which is probably more important than playing football itself. We are really appreciating what a team can be right now," he said.
Manitoba finished 4-4 during the 2019 regular season to qualify for the conference playoffs. The Calgary Dinos earned a narrow 47-46 triumph Nov. 2 at McMahon Stadium to halt the Bisons’ campaign.
With four seconds left on the clock, Manitoba quarterback Des Catellier dropped back and unloaded a 50-yard pass toward a crowd of players on the Calgary goal-line — the football was tipped back to Bisons receiver Trysten Dyce on the 10-yard line and Dyce rumbled into the end zone as time expired.
Dobie opted to got for the two-point conversion instead of kicking the extra point and heading into overtime. But Catellier’s two-point conversion attempt to score the game-winning points was intercepted by Calgary’s Nick Statz, and the Dinos moved on.
Manitoba has about 90 players in the program for the 2020-21 academic year, although about 20 won’t participate for various reasons, including some out-of-towners who made the choice to complete their studies online and others who are using the year to work before returning to school in the fall of 2021.
"We didn’t pressure guys to come. It’s pretty obvious. I’m a parent, too, and I respect that. The courses are online... there’s an economic element to this. It’s far cheaper to take your courses online from your home in Calgary. With everything that people are going through with COVID-19, parents getting laid off, kids not having jobs, we’re certainly respecting that," said Dobie, who has been the Bisons’ head coach since 1996. "We’re still giving any of our players scholarships that choose to stay home."
“It’s puts an element of enjoyment and fun into it. It’s taken away so much pressure and stress. You’re not preparing every week to play Saskatchewan, UBC and Calgary, you’re working with your guys, you’re interacting. It’s refreshing." — Brian Dobie
In late July, U Sports announced it would provide a one-time exception to the age-cap rule, meaning all currently eligible student-athletes can participate in the 2021 football season even if they age out. The Bisons were set to have 13 players miss out on their final season.
Dobie said practices could run until the snow flies, and he’s received nothing but enthusiastic responses from his players, even without the requirement of a constant hunger to win.
"It’s puts an element of enjoyment and fun into it. It’s taken away so much pressure and stress. You’re not preparing every week to play Saskatchewan, UBC and Calgary, you’re working with your guys, you’re interacting. It’s refreshing," he said. "That giant part of it — competition — is definitely missing. And we walk a thin line to keep these guys motivated, interested and challenged without any opponents to look forward to each week."
Dobie said he’s relishing the luxury of time to work with players on fundamentals, which especially benefits first-year players.
"What an opportunity to teach. A place like McMaster (in Hamilton), the program is completely shut down, no meetings, no practices, no nothing this year — total lost season. They’re getting nothing," he said. "So, we’re very fortunate we’re being permitted by our government regulations and our university to move forward, and we’re doing it carefully."
— with files from The Canadian Press
Assistant sports editor
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